“Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore,” declared President Biden in 2020, as the historian Jennifer Burns reminds us in Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative. Biden may wish to reconsider his assessment.
In her latest book, Burns shows how Friedman’s legacy remains central to the pillars of today’s modern economic and political life. She presents not only a well-researched and nuanced biographical sketch of Milton Friedman, but also, in tracing his influence, a riveting tour de force of economic history across the twentieth century.
Friedman originally aspired to be an actuary, but at the University of Chicago he found two loves: his future wife, Rose, and price theory. Summoning an impressive array of archival research, Burns argues that Chicago’s stimulating environment ultimately shaped Friedman’s approach to economics. After working briefly in the New Deal administration and the Treasury Department, Friedman returned to his alma mater to reignite the Chicago School, where he collided with Keynesians and their increasingly sophisticated mathematical modeling.
Burns sets the record straight on Friedman’s contributions to, thinking about, and influence on an evolving discipline. She stresses Friedman’s emphasis on the importance of the money supply even while few economists gave much thought to the Federal Reserve, reminding us of his famous argument that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” With the economist Anna Schwartz, he developed “monetarism” to explain inflationary cycles through the expansions and contractions of the money supply. Together, they revealed the impact a declining money supply had on the Great Depression, and recommended that the awesome power of the Fed be guided by a framework of rules focused exclusively on stable, predictable money growth.
Burns also shows how Friedman drew on the underappreciated work of female economists. It was Schwartz who contributed the historical scope, narrative, and mathematical grunt work to the study on the money supply, and it was the research by Friedman’s wife, Rose, and Dorothy Brady that helped him question the Keynesian relationship between income and spending. According to Burns, these “hidden figures” of consumption economics influenced the work for which Friedman won the Nobel Prize in 1976. Meanwhile, Rose proved crucial to his career as a public intellectual; without always receiving due credit, she helped him popularize his ideas in Capitalism and Freedom (1962), and aided him with his television series Free to Choose and its companion book.
Throughout her work, Burns stresses the pivotal role that Friedman played in the vigorous debates that shaped modern economics. She explains how his novel theories drew on traditional methods to defang the Keynesian consensus seeking greater fiscal spending to nurse business cycles. In the early 1960s, inflation and unemployment were thought to be inversely related, so most economists at the time dismissed Friedman’s warnings of a coming recession. He argued that consumers would recognize rising inflation and trigger a recession by cutting back on their spending—and sure enough, when rising inflation and unemployment created stagflation in the 1970s, Friedman was vindicated.
As Friedman’s prominence rose, the Fed gradually put monetarism into practice, but its ability to control the money supply during the Reagan years was less apparent. Although Friedman’s version of monetarism eventually fell away in favor of policies targeting interest rates, his emphasis on rules-based monetary policy over discretion still resonates today. As Burns shows, Friedman may have lost the battle, but he won the war.
Burns illustrates how Friedman spoke persuasively not only to academics and policymakers, but also how he “took his case for markets and freedom to whomever would listen.” Working across boundaries of politics and traditional economics applications, he argued for an all-volunteer army, education vouchers, and floating exchange rates as the United States shed the gold standard. Sparring with reactionaries and Austrian economists alike, Friedman sought to pave a way for pragmatic conservatism, positing that governments ought to provide a social safety net that incentivizes people to find work without fear of losing welfare.
Even as the impact of his policies took shape, Friedman wrestled over whether economic freedom would always lead to political freedom, as Burns shows. In 1975, Friedman consulted briefly for Augusto Pinochet’s military junta in Chile as part of a longstanding intellectual exchange between the country and the University of Chicago. He recommended to Pinochet a “shock treatment” intended to halt inflation in the ailing socialized economy. Burns sheds light on this often-misinterpreted episode and details how Friedman’s involvement galvanized a “sort of pre-Twitter mob of the global left” who weaponized his relationship with the leader: in linking the economist to the general, these leftists saw a “new weapon with which to fight Conservatism”; “blaming Friedman” for Pinochet’s crimes, they thought, “might redeem the bloodstained legacy of Marxism.”
Burns’s treatment of Friedman is generally evenhanded and doesn’t hesitate to point out perceived shortcomings. In particular, she has little sympathy for his approach to civil rights; she contends that he applied an overly optimistic emphasis on price theory to race relationships. In a view she labels an “apologie for racism,” Friedman argued that the economic inefficiency of discrimination would lead to liberalism winning in the marketplace of ideas. But if Burns is right that Friedman’s economic perspective failed to account fully for the social and political dynamics at play—especially those resulting from Jim Crow laws—reductive labeling on her part may hint at her own disciplinary bias.
As convincing as Burns’s treatment of Friedman’s life work is, less compelling is her subtitle’s claim that the self-described classical liberal was actually the “last conservative.” Her lamenting title refers to a conservative movement that has of late seemingly moved away from “the one Friedman did so much to shape.” Yet calling him “the last conservative” stretches credence given the generations of conservatives he influenced. The label belies the political scope and lasting impact of his contributions, from various incarnations of universal basic income to the “helicopter drop” tactic and the abolishment of the draft. And as Burns rightly shows, animosity toward him “betrays an anxiety of influence, implicitly acknowledging how fundamental Friedman’s style of economic analysis and his skepticism about government regulations have become to liberals as well as conservatives.” Whether you find it agreeable or not, Friedman’s legacy is deeply entrenched.
Most striking is Burns’s portrait of how Friedman turned his academic preoccupations into topics that engaged the minds of laymen and experts alike. Burns puts to bed the notion that his basic ideas have run their course. He may not run the show anymore, but his echoes do still reverberate through the theater.